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Interview: Carlo Bernhardi

by Andrew Osmond,

British anime fandom has many beginnings, perhaps as many as there are fans. Over the last quarter-century, there've been plenty of 'gateway' titles, leading large numbers of newbies into the medium. Attack on Titan, Death Note, Naruto, Spirited Away, Pokémon, Dragonball Z… The line began with Akira, which had a limited cinema release in 1991 in the UK, debuted on video the same year, and got pundits chattering about a strange new medium from Japan.

Some British fans, however, were savvy about anime long before Akira. An early adopter was Carlo Bernhardi, formerly the founder of the “Anime Kyo UK” club and now creator and curator of the Anime Nostalgia Facility blog. Carlo describes the site as “a journey of the Anime Fandom from the mid-1980s to the late 1990s, in celebration of the pioneers.” It's a record of Carlo's gradual discovery of anime in an age before ANN or Wikipedia, when finding out about anime meant hunting down crumbs of information, sending snail-mail across thousands of miles, and spending huge amounts of time, effort and money.

In one way, Carlo had an advantage over most Brit fans of the time. He grew up in Australia, where he watched Tezuka adaptations which never played on British TV, such as Astro-Boy, Kimba the White Lion and the lesser-known The Amazing Three (about aliens impersonating a rabbit, a horse and a duck). He also grew up on Speed Racer, and Marine Boy, while a year in Spain introduced him to Go Nagai's pioneering mecha anime, Mazinger Z.

However, like most of the audience, Carlo had no idea these shows were Japanese. They were, to use the expression of the Anime Encyclopedia, hidden imports, broadcast long before anime was marketed internationally as anime. Several TV anime came to Britain that way in the '70s and '80s. They included Marine Boy, Battle of the Planets (the Americanised Gatchaman) and the French-Japanese Ulysses 31 and Mysterious Cities of Gold. The cycle culminated in the dementedly dubbed Samurai Pizza Cats in the early '90s, pictured (“They've got more fur than a turtle ever had!”).

For Carlo, his deeper interest in anime stemmed from various media he picked up in the '80s, which mostly weren't anime. “It all really stemmed from picking up Battletech kits, and various other things. The kits had little transfers with them, which featured characters which looked like they were from a cartoon. I got some of the kits and realised this was really cool… Also it was the time when Robotech comics and novels were coming over, and also a role-playing book, though Robotech wasn't on terrestrial British TV.”

Originating in the mid-'80s, Battletech was a wargame franchise launched by the FASA corporation. In its early incarnations, it used designs from a number of SF anime, including the original Macross, Crusher Joe and Taiyou no Kiba Dougram (aka Fang of the Sun Dougram). Carlo had a copy of Battletech's “Technical Readout: 3025,” which featured designs faithfully copied from their anime sources. And even before Battletech, Carlo remembers Robotech Defenders and Robotech Changers (pictured), two lines of model kits released by Revell. They repackaged Macross, Dougram and Orguss kits from Japan.

Revell's model lines were only indirectly connected to the Robotech animation. (Revell eventually sold the copyrights of the Robotech name to Harmony Gold.) For those who don't know, the TV Robotech was created for America by splicing together episodes from three different anime series: Macross, Southern Cross and Genesis Climber Mospeada. As Carlo notes, the composite Robotech series never made it to British terrestrial TV, but its spinoff comics, books and RPG could be found in specialist stores. It was one of the first indications that some Japanese animations weren't just weekly cartoons; they could have epic, overarching storylines of the kind you practically never saw in TV animation in Britain (barring Mysterious Cities of Gold.)

Moreover, the animated Robotech did make it to British VHS video, with random titles such as Robotech: The Movie (which reworked yet another anime, the first Megazone 23 film) and Codename Robotech, a compilation. They were thrown out on bottom shelves and in bargain bins as kidvid fodder. Codename Robotech was released on video by “Kids Cartoon Collection” and also by “Parkfield Playtime.” They had nothing to entice a viewer over eight years old, except a viewer with bloodyminded curiosity and a drive to join the dots.

“It was random and laborious,” Carlo remembers. “You recognise the name and you pick up the video, you look at the credits at the end and try to link it together.” The obscurity of these titles' origins was a big part of the appeal. “It was something totally new. There were so few people looking into it… Most people thought they were the only ones interested.”

There were a few other anime video releases in the '80s, such as Once Upon a Time (pictured) and Warriors of the Wind, the kiddified edits of Windaria and Nausicaä. It was somewhat easier to find translated manga in the '80s, at comic shops. Carlo emphasises how his neighbourhood comic stores were the exact opposite of their Simpsons stereotype; they were friendly and helpful, such as Leicester's “Another World” store, which specialised in importing science-fiction titles.

The manga they stocked were imported from America, though many of the runs were cut off midway through. They were published by the likes of Eclipse International, Viz Comics, Dark Horse, First, and the Marvel imprint Epic Comics, which published a colourised version of Akira. Carlo's blog lists titles such as Pineapple Army (drawn though not written by Naoki Urasawa), Area 88, Xenon Heavy Metal Warrior, Grey, Justy: Cosmo Police, Masamune Shirow's Dominion and Crying Freeman. There were also American-drawn adaptations of such properties as Speed Racer, Star Blazers (the US dub of Space Battleship Yamato) and Leiji Matsumoto's Captain Harlock (sic).

Pre-internet, the biggest clues to go beyond these releases were often found in specialist magazines. Carlo subscribed to a British mag, Space Voyager, which covered both science fiction and fact. In his blog, he writes, “I can vividly remember a back cover of one of these magazines having a colour photograph of one of these giant robotic war machines, with cannons instead of arms, and inside was a full page advert from a company called “Taylor & McKenna,” importing Japanese robot kits made by Imai & Bandai. My eyes widened looking at something so cool (now a bit geeky), with wonderful names like Destroid Tomahawk, Tactical Pod Glaug and Armored Valkyrie. These kits all had the logo of 'Macross.' My curiosity was now piqued!”

On trips into London, Carlo found such stores as “Books Nippon,” near Saint Paul's. Through these stores, you could pay handsome sums to have anime magazines from Japan delivered to your door, such as Animage, Animedia and Newtype. They were nearly all in Japanese; Carlo bought them for the illustrations and for the nuggets of information which could be gleaned from the odd word in English.

Later Carlo picked up issues of the British fanzine MekTek. It focused on Battle Suit Warfare games with material on their Japanese roots, including artwork by Steve Kyte and reviews by Helen McCarthy. Carlo also found info in imported magazines, "infozines," and catalogues stocked by comic book stores.

Among the magazines which emerged at the end of the '80s was the Canadian Protoculture Addicts. It began as a fanzine, including addresses for pen-pals, retail stores which did mail-order overseas, and fan clubs. More information about fandom could be found on the back pages of translated manga, such as the first English-language run of Appleseed.

They gave contact details for clubs such as “Anime Hasshin,” run by Lorraine Savage, and the Dallas-based “Earth Defence Command” or EDC. Carlo joined both, adding fanzines such as “The Rose” (the bi-monthly newsletter of “Anime Hasshin”), and “Nova” (the quarterly newsletter of the EDC) to his collection.

Another info source was gaming magazines. “Video consoles from Japan were coming in, and companies would pop up in these magazines which did Japanese imports. In the middle of 1990, I bought a small white Japanese PC Engine, mainly on the basis that it had City Hunter as one of the games. A good portion of the console games were based on anime… There were people doing fan magazines just on gaming consoles, because they were so new.” Carlo cites a Nottingham monthly fanzine called Console Magazine (pictured), which helped tell gamers about the links to anime and manga.

By the start of 1990, Carlo was in touch with about six UK anime fans. Then that April, he had a rare chance to get together with British fans and watch anime. The occasion was the SF convention Eastcon in Liverpool, where Helen McCarthy wangled some slots to Screen Anime; more than thirty hours' worth in all. Among the cornucopia of anime shown were Gundam, Space Cobra, Robot Carnival, Lupin the Third, Macross, Grey: Digital Target and Project A-ko. The deep of the night also saw screenings of Cream Lemon and Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend.

“I was a complete newbie, I'd never been to any conventions of any sort,” Carlo remembers. “I was just overwhelmed… Meeting up with people from north England with Zentraedi badges from Macross… Going to a video room to see anime in raw Japanese. It was the chance of a lifetime, because it wasn't on television. It was awe-inspiring, the amount of different styles, the fact that it was aimed at adults.

“I do remember the very late night screening of the first episode of Overfiend (the original OAV serial, later compiled into the notorious movie of the same name, pictured). People were shocked, a few of them left and rumour has it at least one person was sick. There'd been very little western animation aimed at an adult market. A lot of people just turned up to the event… They hadn't seen anime, didn't know what it was. I'm sure there were strict warnings of the content before we went in, but the whole thing with anime was that it had never been seen before. There may not even have been a synopsis of what we were watching."

(Update: Helen herself points out that the Eastcon screening also included the gruesome Violence Jack, and she remembers that as causing the most green-faced walkouts among supposedly 'hardened' attendees. She adds that both it and Overfiend were advertised as 'containing something to offend absolutely everyone.' Violence Jack was packed out, as was Akira.)

Carlo continues, “I think on Sunday, we had a planned meeting of fans, with maybe 12 to 20 people who turned up. It was the first time for us to physically meet together, though one or two of us had exchanged letters. Helen decided to keep us all in touch from then on by doing a newsletter, which went on to become the magazine Anime UK. What I took away from Eastcon was that I wanted to create a fan club, so that's where "Anime Kyo UK" ("Animation Today") came from, another way of linking fans together. I'd make up flyers and posters, I'd go round comic shops and leave the flyers. All the information was hand-typed, photocopied, mailed out to people… The main thing was creating a fandom, getting people in touch.”

Carlo, like other Eastcon alumni, also started holding anime video screenings at his house. This necessitated buying some very expensive hardware, as the tapes came from America in NTSC format. Carlo was obliged to travel to London, tracking down an NTSC-compatible VHS player. He then invested in a heavy 32-inch Panasonic TV which would accept the signal. The total outlay was the better part of a thousand pounds.

“Through American and Canadian contacts, we did a lot of tape trading, not that we had much to trade,” says Carlo. “I used to do copies of Carry On films for the Americans, or sometimes just paid for the postage. A lot of the time, people just sent lists of what they had, and you had no idea what it was; there was no way to find out. Nearly all of it was raw Japanese, with very occasional fan subtitling.” As with many of the early manga imports, long series were reduced to small tastes. “You couldn't really get into a long series because it would take hours and hours to copy.”

Tape quality ranged from crisp recordings, only a copy or two removed from the original laserdisc, to copies where the picture was nine-tenths snow. “Fans were willing to watch extremely low-quality copies at the time, just because it wasn't available anywhere else.”

To support the fledgling Anglophone anime industry, Carlo also bought the small number of subtitled anime which were starting to emerge Stateside, aimed at this niche fan market. Early titles included MADOX-01 and Riding Bean (from AnimEigo), along with Gunbuster and Dangaioh (three VHS tapes each, released by US Renditions). Eventually, though, copyright prevented these releases being shipped to Britain. Other fans with European contacts could get titles from elsewhere; for example, Italian dubs of Saint Seiya.

“There were anime meetings going on in people's bedrooms, in front rooms, in libraries or village halls,” Carlo recalls. “I recall showing Bubblegum Crisis to a Super-8 film society, and people were amazed at the cinematography, the camera angles and splitscreen effects. They hadn't seen anything like this, the techniques being transferred into animation. That got a massive reaction.”

The year after EastCon, Carlo co-presented an anime video room with Jay Felton at AlbaCon'91 in Glasgow. 1991 was also the year of the first dedicated UK anime event, “Anime Day” (pictured). A one-day convention in Sheffield, it was supported by the Sheffield Space Centre. "It was in a community centre of all places, with three or four rooms… There were male attendees wearing Grey: Digital Target T-shirts, with 'Lips' in bright pink lettering.”

And 1991 was the year Akira came to Britain in cinemas and on video, paving the way for new video labels and the birth of the British anime industry as we know it. But if you want more info on the pre-Akira years of UK anime fandom, you know where to go.

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